Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin. Photo: Getty
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Harsher penalties for drivers who use mobiles at the wheel under consideration

The number of penalty points awarded could be doubled to six, as the Transport Secretary says he wants to address the "appalling" number of road casualties caused by drivers using phones.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has suggested that harsher sanctions could be placed on drivers caught using their mobile phones at the wheel.

Acknowledging that Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe “has called for six penalty points for the use of a mobile phone”, the Conservative Cabinet minister said: “It is an interesting suggestion. It is one to look out for.”

He described the number of road deaths associated with driving and mobile phone use as “absolutely appalling”.

In 2011, he pointed out, mobile phone use by the driver was recorded as a contributing factor in 23 fatalities and 74 serious injuries on British roads.

“I think we’ve got to change this, we’ve got to get that message across,” he added.

In a speech at a lunch for Westminster journalists today, McLoughlin conceded that there “could be some difficulties” around the harsher sanctions and said he has “no immediate plans” to implement the stricter rules, but stressed that he was considering the option: “I want to look at that particular issue.”

In the meantime, he said he wants “to alert people to what they’re doing and that it’s a foolish thing to do.”

Discussing the government’s flagship infrastructure project, HS2, he admitted it is “controversial”, but added that it would be deemed “controversial at least until it's built and then when it’s built people will say why did you not try it before.”

The high speed route is “necessary”, he maintained, due to “capacity” issues at present.

In a wide ranging discussion, McLoughlin, a former miner and member of the National Union of Miners, defended his refusal to strike in 1984 when asked about it. He said: “There was a ballot in the area that I worked in, the Western area… and we voted 74 per cent to 26 per cent to carry on working. So I don’t think I was doing anything undemocratic.”

He went on to challenge the romanticism that has become attached to the miners’ strikes of the 1980s in the public imagination. “The thing that is most annoying about that strike is these rose tinted glasses that look back on it.”

He added: “It wasn’t so very many years ago that the last thing a father would want for his son would be to follow him down a coalmine. And I think it’s a sort of hypocrisy… that that’s the only ambition you should have for your child – to follow you down a coalmine.

“Unfortunately my father died when I was young so I never really knew him, but I don’t think he would have been overly proud if he knew that I had followed him down a coalmine.”

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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